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Steven Johnson: In Conversation With Brian Eno

A discussion about music, imagination, and art

9 min read

Brian Eno smiles.
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Earlier this year, the artist and musician Brian Eno delivered the annual BBC Music John Peel Lecture on the the question of whether art was a “luxury,” and how we ought to go about measuring its value.

Eno spoke at length about his definition of art and culture, and its continued importance in an era increasingly focused on STEM values–science, technology, education, and math–where it can sometimes feel as though the goal of our education leaders and politicians is simply to train a new generation of C++ programmers. I listened to it, appropriately enough, driving up Interstate 280 through Silicon Valley after a visit to the Computer History Museum, and it struck me that Eno had made an essential point about the role of art in both creating and making sense of social transformation.

“We’re going to be in a world of ultrafast change,” he said. “It’s really accelerating at the moment and will continue to. And we’re going to have to somehow stay coherent. What are we going to be doing? I think we’re going to be even more full-time artists than we are now.”

These are themes that have been central to us here at How We Get To Next, and with our current feature month on the Future of Music, it seemed like a perfect time to dive into the topic in more detail with Eno. So I paid him a visit at his Notting Hill studio, where he was nice enough to interrupt a session mastering a new album to sit down and chat with me. We had a fascinating and often very funny conversation that covered, among many other things: childhood play, his first synthesizer, Dickens, the birth of ambient music, and the enduring importance of style in human history.

(For transcripts from each video, scroll down.)

On Music

On Punchlines

On Art

Making Music



On Music

Steven: It’s interesting with music that you have something that is so ethereal and so abstract, and yet in a way, of all the art forms, it’s been the most–particularly recently–driven by technological changes, just because of instrument design over the last 400 or 500 years.

Brian: Yes, and of course the circle is completed, because as soon as a new instrument is made people start composing new music for it. People start thinking of musical possibilities that weren’t thinkable before. So when the third–the Steinway with the third pedal–came out in the, I don’t know, early part of the 20th century, suddenly composers starting writing Debussy and so on, started writing music that you couldn’t have played before. And, I mean, we notice this every day–actually, I should say, now, with software-based instruments. We have a revolution equivalent to the grand piano every day. It’s true. It’s honestly true, I mean, I’m not exaggerating. There are amazingly interesting new instruments being made, so many of them that nobody learns ever to play them.

Steven: So your first electronic instrument was the VCS 3, is that right?

Brian: Yep.

Steven: And do you remember what it was like experiencing it for the first time? Was it an immediate sense of “oh, everything has changed, this is a completely new landscape,” or did it take you a while to realize the possibilities of it?

Brian: Well, I had a little bit of form beforehand, because I had made a very simple synthesizer for myself out of two signals generators. You know what those are? They’re just test devices for testing equipment, but you’d go [makes synthesizer noises]. So I used to use that. So I wasn’t the keyboard player anyway, but I wasn’t particularly looking for a keyboard instrument. I wanted to be able to do more of that. But the thing about the VCS that was really interesting was you could take another electric instrument and plug it in, and then start to do something with that sound. That was really the thing that hooked me. Actually being able to take another instrument and do with it the kinds of things you could only do in recording studios, but do it live with the instrument. So, that was what thrilled me, that you could tak–and also I loved the idea of an instrument that was played by two people, you know. Somebody playing electric guitar, then it comes into my thing and I’m doing something with the electric guitar. So we could start to get a sound that really nobody had ever heard done on stage before.

Steven: Was there a comparable technological change that helped trigger the ambient idea?

Brian: Well, yes, I think the important thing there was to do with the possibilities of tape recorders, which actually was the basis of a lot of the things I did. That was why I was so interested in the recording studio, because as soon as music’s on tape, it’s not ephemeral anymore. It’s suddenly plastic, you know, it’s malleable. You can start to do things with it. Now that sounds so obvious now, but it wasn’t very obvious to most people in the 70s, even, when people would say, when you told them how you’re making records, they’d say, “That’s cheating, isn’t it? Anyone could do that.”

Steven: And then it becomes sampling, right, and it becomes an essential part of the vocabulary.

Brian: Cheating is actually all I ever do.

On Punchlines

Brian: The problem with talking about art, I think, is that there’s still a hangover from romantic assumptions that art intrinsically has something. I don’t think art intrinsically has very much at all. I think nearly everything that it has is conferred upon it by our collective history of experiencing art. So we create the value. I think when something is exciting to you, a picture or a piece of music, what’s exciting is that you’re hearing the latest sentence in a conversation you’ve been having all your life. When you look at a painting, you don’t just see that painting, you see every other picture you’ve ever seen. That painting is in the context of every picture you’ve ever seen. So, it’s, when I do a talk about this sometimes, a lecture, I do a quite good trick–I have projected on the screen behind me, because I draw things and so on as I’m talking, and in the top left corner of the screen is this little sentence that says “I used to have a car like that.” And I don’t ever draw attention to it or mention it. I just carry on doing, but the sentence is always up there, and at a certain point I’m talking about the idea of “¦ a piece of art being the latest–or the most final for you at that moment–statement in this long conversation you’ve been having. And then I tell this story about this American guy who came to England to discover his ancestors, who came from Devon. And he was driving around Devon, he was a very wealthy Texan actually, and he sees an old farmer sitting, leaning on a gate, and he says, “Is this your land?” And the farmer says, “Yeah it is. It goes all the way from top of the hill there down to the river. That’s all mine.” And the Texan laughs and he says, “If I get up in the morning I can drive all day before I get to the other end of my land.” And the farmer says, “Yeah, I used to have a car like that.” And the point is, until you hear the rest of the story, the sentence makes no sense at all. You don’t know what it’s about. And I think one of the first things to understand about artworks is they’re all punchlines. They’re all the latest sentence in the story, and they don’t make sense in the abstract. So “¦ first of all, you are never looking at one piece of art–you’re looking at it in terms of a huge context, the whole of the rest of the joke is there, you know, so this thing slots in. So what you’re aware of are differences. Now, once you understand that, it’s much easier to understand what music is doing. Whatever you’ve heard, you might never have heard anything as soft as that, or as angular, or as loud, or whatever it is. And of course those properties have meaning to you, you know. When I first started making ambient music, the first thing reviewers noticed was everything that was missing. Doesn’t have a beat, it doesn’t have a melody, doesn’t really have any chords, doesn’t have words. So, all it had was space, actually, and that’s what people picked up on. They’d never heard music with as much space as that, actually. So, the difference was both what it was missing and what it therefore had as a result.

Steven: I’ve been thinking about this way of thinking about music as basically controlled surprise–that we have this deep evolutionary instinct to be interested in surprising facts about the world. When we make a prediction, that this is going to end this way and it doesn’t, our brains are wired to pay attention to it. So that keeps up searching out new sounds, or new melodies, or new formal possibilities, because we have to be surprised on some level.

Brian: But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that you can re-experience that surprise lots and lots of time and still love it. Whereas if I told you that joke again, it wouldn’t be so funny, would it? And if I told it to you a third time, you’d start to get fed up with it, and if I told you 150 times “¦ “Hey, I’ve got a really good one, this guy comes over from America to find his roots in Devon, he meets this farmer “¦” So it’s interesting to me…

Steven: It has this long half-life, somehow.

Brian: Yes, yes, that’s right. Music can actually remain, as I can attest to now, exciting for 40 or 50 years. You still like it, so there’s obviously something more complicated than my punchline theory going on as well.

On Art

Steven: You have this amazing definition of art, that’s maybe the best definition I’ve ever heard.

Brian: Well, it used to be my definition of culture. I used to say culture is everything you don’t have to do, because there’s the anthropological meaning of culture, meaning, you know, kinship and religion and language and all that sort of thing, and then there’s the capital-C version of culture, which means stuff we call art. But what I mean is something actually in between those two. I call art everything that is the sort of stylistic overlay to the things you do. So, for example, you have to wear clothes, but you don’t have to wear Levi’s or Yves Saint-Laurent, or Coco Chanel. So there are a lot of elaborations that we make on top of the things we have to do. And, in fact, a lot of our time is spent on those elaborations. We spend a lot of our thinking time in the world of style. And I call all of that artistic activity. Some of it is very obviously artistic activity–there’s no reason for making a painting, other than for it to be a painting. But it’s a little bit different if you get things like cake decoration or cardigan knitting or something like that, where there’s also a functional layer. So the only difference, as far as I’m concerned, between fine art and, let’s say, craft, is the amount of stylistic interest there is in the piece. The quota, the quotient of it that is stylistic. As I say, a painting doesn’t exist for any other reason than to be a painting, unless you were using it to cover a hole in the wall, of course, which you could do–that would be a rare example of a functional painting. Or you could encode a treasure map in it or something like that, or an insult to somebody, but generally speaking, paintings don’t have a job other than to be pictures, to be purely stylistic experiences.

Steven: Once you expand the definition from painting and ballet all the way to cake decoration and hair styles, you realize that there’s a massive amount of focus and energy and emotional investment in that layer.

Brian: It’s the biggest business “¦ If you think of all the things that come under that now-enlarged umbrella. Think not only of the music business and the art business and the film business and the record–all the media–but think of things like cosmetics, for example. A vast, huge business, which is all to do with stylistic activity of some kind. So yes, it’s a very big area, and of course the question I am always wondering and have been always wondering about it is why do we do it? Why do we have such an interest in this, and spend so much time doing it? Because, first of all, it’s universal. We don’t know of a human group that, as soon as they can just keep body and soul together, they start becoming stylistic in their behavior. This goes right back to 50,000 years ago, when people start cave painting and making little sculptures and so on. You think, why were they doing it? And why was anyone else interested in the fact they were doing it? Because it seems always, as far as we know, in every society, people who can do that are valued. They’re sometimes treasured, actually. In our society, they’re paid a lot of money, which is the only way we express value in anything. Music has never been figurative. It’s the only art form, if you think about it, that has never had a figurative history. Painting, even back to cave painting, it’s paintings of things. Sculpture the same obviously; literature has always been about things; stories about things. But music seems to come out of nowhere and is about nothing in particular, even though, if you get classical albums, they always try to say the sound: “Beethoven captures the sound of the babbling brook,” and it’s all complete bollocks, and everyone knows it. It’s only because records were 12 inches square and they had to fill the back up with something. They needed some words.

Making Music

Steven: I feel like you played a critical role in inventing the idea of the studio as the songwriting pro “¦ like that, you know.

Brian: Yeah.

Steven: Instead of, I sit down with my guitar and I’ve written this song, and now I bring it to the studio, and, “Hey, George Martin, I’ve written this nice little acoustic ballad called “‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ now go crazy with it and layer stuff.” Instead, starting with “¦

Brian: Start with crazy.

Steven: “¦ with crazy sounds, and somehow a song evolves, and I feel like that is so much more common now.

Brian: So this is Logic, and this is one of the little software synths they’ve got in Logic. It’s actually a lovely instrument. [Music plays.] It’s going through a software guitar amp, so this is very interesting–they exactly simulate the amp. Let’s have a modern American head, there we go. [Music plays.] OK, let’s take Darcy singing “ooh, baby.” That’s nice, isn’t it? That’s who it was. Take the speed down, really low.

Steven: You’re still like a third of the way through the loop. [Laughter.] It’s amazing, it shows you how much is going on when somebody sings, right?

Brian: I’ve been working with some software that a friend of mine and I have been developing, to make really interesting–this is just a two-bar loop, but I’ve got things operating on the MIDI to say sometimes leave something out here; jump that up an octave. I’m just going to start off by making a very simple loop. [Music plays.] And what this one’s going to do is it’s going to randomly, occasionally throw the stick onto another drum, as it were. You can make it sound like a really kind of bad jazz drummer. [Music plays.] OK, now it’s starting to get somewhere.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Fast Forward section, which examines the relationship between music and innovation. Click the logo to read more.